We asked Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and the coauthor and editor of several books, to talk to us about how the politics in California might continue to evolve over the next fifty years.
Boom: How will California’s changing demographics change our politics and priorities?
Thad Kousser: Just this year we finally have seen the coming to fruition of California’s march toward diversity and how that’s changed politics and policy. Latinos played a major role in getting Governor Brown elected in 2010, and the reward finally came with the major education overhaul in this year’s budget deal, which absolutely transforms the way schools are funded from the schools in richer areas getting more money to schools that have more high-needs students, and especially more ESL getting the lions’ share of the increase in funding. It benefits all the constituents of the Latino legislative caucus in Sacramento, and it benefits the Latino voters who delivered Jerry Brown his victory.
We’ve already seen California step back from its Three Strikes law and change its approach to its prison population. That’s certainly an issue that’s been tied into race. I think the other question will be how will we deal with the next round of budget cuts, which will be inevitable—we’ll always have a budget crisis. Will we deal with this by primarily cutting social services, which is how we mostly got through this budget crisis, or will we deal with it primarily by raising taxes? We will see more Latino power, but as Latinos have become the plurality and will become the majority, does the political division become less salient?
Boom: What are the prospects for the Republican Party in California?
Kousser: In the short term, Republican prospects are so dim that I think we’ll see a very different Republican party a generation from now. There’s no question in anyone’s mind, not least the minds of Republicans, that the party needs to adapt or become a permanent minority. But it’s not as if the party chair can flip a switch and have Republicans moderate, stop talking about gay marriage and immigration. These are still issues that are central to the remaining Republican base in California and important to a lot of its leaders. But there’s universal recognition that the party cannot survive California’s new demography with the platform it has today. Over twenty or thirty years, we’ll see a Republican party that maybe looks like the party of Earl Warren’s years rather than that of Pete Wilson’s time.
But Republicans who run away from the party nationally always have the ability to make their own politics. If you’ve got $100 million to spend on advertisements or the kind of political capital that someone like Condoleeza Rice has, you have the chance to change the party’s brand. Otherwise, I don’t see Republicans winning any of the other statewide offices for a while. But there might be some opportunity at the local level where candidates can have a personal relationship with voters, like in city council and mayor’s races. But in assembly districts, in congressional districts, when you’re running for state controller, it’s hard to get the attention of enough Californians to change their minds about who the party is.
Boom: Will we have real dramatic reform by 2050?
Kousser: We haven’t had a constitutional convention since 1879, yet we’ve amended our constitution 500 times in the last century. We amended it five times in 2010. We’ve rewritten the rules of our government in really important ways. In the coming years, we may see tinkering with the tax code. If you see a Supreme Court striking down contribution limits and disclosure laws—which is not a certainty but a clear possibility—you’ll see renewed attention to changing state campaign finance laws. Such changes at the national level might also make voters willing to invest in a robust public financing system for candidates. The chances of that happening are low, but greater than zero.
California democracy demands a lot of voters. It means we have to make choices about lots of candidates who we don’t know too much about, and we have to make choices about initiatives that are really complicated. I think most of the reforms are aimed at taking advantage of new technology that give voters better information so that, without devoting their lives to the study of California politics, they can make informed decisions, and to try to give a counterbalance to the groups that are giving us lots of information now, which is whoever can afford the thirty-second TV ads.
Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Kousser: I’d have to look around the cars in my city and see if someone still has a Filner for Mayor bumper sticker.